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Textile magnate, philanthropist Roger Milliken has died at age 95

Roger Milliken
2010-12-31

Wofford President Benjamin B. Dunlap reacts to death of college friend

Roger Milliken Tribute Web Site

By Linda Conleylinda.conley@shj.com
Spartanburg Herald-JournalPublished: Thursday, December 30, 2010 

Roger Milliken’s epitaph will simply read, “Builder.”

The textile magnate, lifelong philanthropist and community leader died Thursday at the age of 95, surrounded by his children and grandchildren at Spartanburg Regional Hospice Home. But not before building a lasting legacy.

Through his business empire, his funding of local education, his politics and his proliferation of the hobbies that gave him enjoyment, Milliken arguably did more to shape Spartanburg during the last half of the 20th century than any other individual.

Born Oct. 24, 1915, in New York City, Milliken moved to Spartanburg in 1954, bringing the headquarters of the company with him. For more than 60 years, the man who studied French history at Yale University led the business his grandfather and a partner launched in 1865, growing the Milliken name into a worldwide brand known for its innovation in textile and chemical manufacturing.

Today, the privately-held company has more than 2,000 patents and 9,000 associates in 45 locations worldwide, with more than 19,000 textile and chemical products. Internationally, publications point to Milliken as the visionary who renewed his family's business, even as other mills shuttered sending manufacturing jobs overseas. In 1999, Textile World magazine named him its leader of the century.

Early history

Seth Milliken, Roger Milliken's grandfather, and William Deering launched a small woolen fabrics company in Portland, Maine. In 1884, the company invested in its first Spartanburg County property, Pacolet Manufacturing Co.

Roger Milliken took the reins of the family business in 1947, becoming president after the death of his father, Gerrish H. Milliken, and later moved his family and the company headquarters to Spartanburg. In 1976, Deering Milliken Co. officially changed its name to Milliken & Co., and in 1983, Milliken became the company's chairman and chief executive officer.

By 2008, Forbes placed Milliken's net worth at $1 billion. That same year, the company named Joe Salley president and chief executive officer, but Milliken remained chairman until the time of his death.

Shaping Spartanburg
Most Spartanburg County residents never set foot inside Milliken's headquarters off Pine Street. They might not have seen the Milliken's 6-foot-something, lanky frame striding through the neighborhood streets of Converse Heights, where he shared a home with his wife, Nita, for decades. They might not remember the auburn hair of his youth, or his thick rimmed glasses.

But, countless residents have enjoyed the fruits of his labor — whether they knew it or not.

On sunny afternoons, the 600-acre park in front of the corporate headquarters is filled with families.

"The Milliken Park is the essential park for many people. It is not just for the affluent," said former Spartanburg Mayor Bill Barnet. "If you drive by, you will see kids frolicking with the birds or playing ball on Frontage Road."

In 1957, Milliken worked with parents and business leaders to establish the Spartanburg Day School, and he has given millions to Wofford and Converse colleges. At Wofford, he donated $5 million toward the construction of the $14.5 million Milliken Science Center, which opened in 2001. In 1971, Milliken and his wife donated $2 million to construct a building to house Converse College's fine arts programs, and when the number of students ballooned, the couple donated $4.5 million to add the Nita Milliken Wing.

Of course, Milliken's impact on local education goes beyond donations.

In the 1960s, he helped usher in integration at Wofford, agreeing to support Wofford financially should accepting a black student drive away others.

He also created access to higher education through programs such as The Summer Leadership Institute and Milliken Scholarships.

The textile magnate's influence, however, wasn't limited to education — at least not in classrooms.

People who knew Milliken always talk about his passion for the environment and love of noble trees. Milliken imbued the Spartanburg community with his love for landscaping and trees, creating the Noble Tree Foundation. The organization educates others about the need for landscaping and trees and has worked with cities across the Upstate.

Milliken's corporate website also indicates that 43 Milliken manufacturing sites do not send waste to landfills, and less than one-tenth of 1 percent of the company's solid waste was shipped to landfills in 2008.

But perhaps Milliken's greatest achievement in shaping the future of the Upstate lies in another passion — aviation.

He helped establish the Greenville-Spartanburg International Airport, which saw its first flights on Oct. 15, 1962, and remained the chairman of the airport commission until his death.

Having GSP in the region was instrumental in landing BMW Manufacturing Co. in the early 1990s, and helped usher in the new automotive era in the Upstate.

In October, Milliken stood at GSP once more, light from an open hangar door illuminating his face. This time, he was announcing the arrival of lowcost air carrier, Southwest Airlines.

"On the night before the original opening of GSP, I saw an elderly couple sitting on the steps of the courtyard," Milliken told the crowd gathered at the announcement. "They were pinching each other because they couldn't believe something like this was in Greer, South Carolina. Today is going to be something to celebrate even more."

A textile leader

Milliken grew the company into one of the top 50 privately-held companies in the country.

"Here is a guy who took a decent size company, not a little mom-and-pop company, and made it into a multibillion-dollar company," said Auggie Tantillo, executive director of the American Manufacturing Trade Action Coalition (AMTAC). "We need to understand that massive expansion is attributed to one man. He had this uncanny ability to predict and understand what was going on, not just on any particular day, but five years from now. He knew what it took to get to the next level."

Tantillo met Milliken about 30 years ago when Tantillo worked as the legislative assistant to Sen. Strom Thurmond from 1981-85. Tantillo's job was to advise Thurmond on issues involving trade, commerce and agriculture. He continued to work with Milliken after being appointed by President George H.W. Bush in 1989 to serve as deputy assistant secretary of commerce for textiles, apparel and consumer goods.

"Mr. Milliken was a key contact for us," Tantillo said. "He was very insightful, brilliant and an industrialist. He was brilliant in terms of understanding the overall economic policy and quite adept at understanding circumstances in the job and economic environment in South Carolina and the country as a whole."

Tantillo said Milliken learned about business by working with his father and grandfather. He also thinks Milliken's degree in French history gave him a good understanding about the economies and structures of other countries and their impact on the global economy.

"He (Milliken) studied the last 300 years of the British, French and Spanish and how they built up large economies and became world powers only to let it slip through their hands with short-sided policies," Tantillo said. "He truly learned if you don't remember the past you are condemned to repeat it, and he took that to heart."

Not many details are ever made public about the company, but its accolades give a glimpse inside the textile empire and the man who was its driving force all these years.

This past spring, Milliken received an award from Ethisphere Magazine as one of the world's most ethical companies for the fourth straight year. The company was also recognized several times by Fortune magazine as one of the "Best Companies to Work For" and made Business Week magazine's top 100 "Best Places to Launch a Career" in 2008.

"You don't get all of those patents and products from doing the same old thing," said James M. Borneman, Textile World Magazine editor-in-chief. "Milliken had industry changing developments with products such as Visa. It was easy to give them an innovation award. You didn't have to look far. It was not blowing smoke."

Visa is table linen brand Milliken produced in the napery industry. It is still used by laundries and restaurants all over the world.

Borneman said Milliken also leads the way in video conferences, having employees take courses at Milliken University, which provides education and training.

"Milliken employees could get in a room and take a course from Palo Alto. They did video conferencing long before it was popular," Borneman said. "When you visit, you see employees wearing different color blazers and wingman status. The company promotes from within and is almost like a soft military."

One arena of business Milliken didn't mind discussing publicly was his strong opposition to free trade because of the number of American jobs lost to foreign countries. He often talked about the importance of keeping jobs in the country and remained committed to keeping his American plants in operation. A decade before free trade was launched, Milliken served as chairman of the Crafted With Pride in the USA council in 1984.

"I remember some of Mr. Milliken's earliest conversations with the senator and others," Tantillo said. "He said the path that we were on, diminishing the value of manufacturing in the United States, would lead to the loss of millions of jobs. He believed it was important to keep the best jobs in our country because the middle class was depending on them. He said if we didn't, we would end up having to live off of borrowed money to sustain our standard of living. And if you start borrowing money at excessive rates and the government has to borrow money at excessive rates, you have this cascading negative impact on the country and economy. Unfortunately, he was 100 percent correct."

Another job practice Milliken didn't tolerate was unions. He became infamous with unions in 1956 when he shuttered a Darlington mill after employees voted to unionize. The employees sued and battled him in court for more than 20 years. The case was finally settled, and he ended up paying a $5 million settlement.

Milliken was predeceased by his wife, Justine "Nita" Van Rensselaer Hooper. He is survived by his five children, Justine "Jan" Van Rennselear Milliken Russell, Nancy Milliken, Roger Milliken Jr., David Gayley and Weston Freeman Milliken.